19 July 2014

A hot day on the Hochstollen

Time: 5 hours
Grading: T2+
Height gain: 660 metres
Height loss: 1330 metres

Melchsee-Frutt – Hochstollen – Käserstatt - Wasserwendi

After a scorching hot week which is threatening to degenerate into thunderstorms later in the weekend, I choose Saturday for my last walk before the summer holidays, rather than my more usual Sunday. In a week's time I will be off for a lazy few days on the Atlantic coast of France, then a much more energetic two weeks' hiking across part of Bavaria, Austria and the Engadine.

I meet a friend at the station where, at 8 in the morning, it is already very warm indeed. So warm in fact that both of us have taken the unusual step of exposing our normally well-hidden and shamefully white legs. A combination of train, bus and cable car take us up to Melchsee-Frutt, a wonderfully-situated mountain resort surrounded by an amphitheatre of peaks of all shapes and sizes.

The air is thankfully a bit cooler up here, and there is a nice breeze blowing as we set off westwards down a broad, stony track. The 2480-metre Hochstollen, our target for the day, rears up directly ahead, vertically rocky on this side and seemingly unassailable. Passing a couple of nondescript little lakes on our right, we soon come to the larger Blausee, a pretty, shallow lake whose water is more green than blue but nonetheless looks very inviting indeed… though I suspect that anyone thinking of going in for a swim would soon incur the wrath of the numerous fishermen dotted around the lake's banks.

The Blausee and the Hochstollen
Beyond the end of the lake, the path begins to climb quite steeply, passing through herds of cows, some of whom have unusually resonant, loud bells round their necks. The path angles up across surprisingly green pastureland, a reminder that we have recently had one of the wettest summer weeks I can remember. Soon we reach the ridge at a point marked on the map as Abgschütz (2263 metres), from where there is a superb view back down to the high Melchsee-Frutt plateau, with its lakes strung out into the distance. The little Blausee is right at our feet, then the Melchsee itself, then the Tannensee in the middle distance and finally the beautiful Engstlensee, way away in the hazy distance. All of this is set against a backdrop of high mountains and glaciers, in which the Titlis is prominent, as is another glacier-covered mountain which may be the Sustenhorn. We stop here for a much-needed drinks break, sitting on the grassy ridge top and enjoying the view as we take big gulps from fast-emptying water bottles.

The view eastwards from Abgschütz is extensive
 Now we head southwards towards the summit, hidden for the time being by rocky outcrops in the foreground. As we top a short rise, the view opens up to the south, and suddenly the giant summits of the Bernese Oberland are there in front of us, with the Wetterhorn dominating the valley that runs up to the Grosse Scheidegg. The path becomes a bit more demanding than I had expected, becoming narrow and airy as it crosses very steep grassy slopes below the crest of the ridge. Concentration is required for half an hour, before the ridge broadens out again at the base of the Hochstollen's summit slopes. The last hundred metres are steep but easy zigzags up a shaly hillside that is not unlike the top part of the way up to the Pilatus, above the Klimsenkapelle. Just below the summit, a signpost warns that care is needed on the route that we have just come up: they could have told us that before we started!

The path crosses steep slopes where some care is needed, heading for the 2480-metre Hochstollen in the background.
The summit itself is grassy and well populated with walkers either eating lunch or resting. We find a nicely-angled grass slope to eat our sandwiches, quiche and carrot cake, before settling down for a half-hour siesta under a burning sun. Despite the heat, I drape a fleece over my bare legs to keep them from frying completely. Beside us, a group of people are using an app on a mobile phone to identify the distant peaks and glaciers. Most prominent to the south is the huge expanse of the Trift glacier, while south-westwards there are numerous Bernese summits to tick off: Finsteraarhorn, Schreckhorn, Wetterhorn, Dossen and the tumbling ice of the Rosenlaui glacier, vertical and menacing above the Reichenbach valley.

Rather than going back down the same way as originally planned, we decide on an alternative descent on the Hasliberg side of the ridge. A narrow path drops down below the summit, then rises to cross a rocky tower. A slightly exposed passage here is secured with a handrail… or rather was secured, as the handrail appears to have been sat on by a very large elephant and is not much good for anything. We drop down below an isolated pinnacle of layered rock in the middle of which is a sizeable hole, then on down to a saddle in the ridge where a very steep-looking path branches off back down towards Melchsee-Frutt, down a rubble-filled gully.

Rock formations below the summit of the Hochstollen
Shortly beyond this point, we leave the ridge path, which continues over the Glogghuis and Rothorn, two much more challenging summits which I suspect will always be beyond my capacities, though my friend remembers being taken over them as a teenager and living to tell the tale. Now we start the descent proper, steeply down through pastureland where an assortment of cows in various colour schemes graze. We soon reach the cable car station at Käserstatt, where the sunny terrace of the restaurant makes the perfect place for a break for coffee and refreshing cold drinks.

Below Käserstatt, the path continues prettily through fields and light woodland. Some of the largest ants I have ever seen scuttle about on the path, fat and shiny black – at first I think they are beetles, so large are they. At 1320 metres, the path ends and we continue down a narrow lane. The mountains of the Bernese Oberland have come much closer now, and appear much more imposing than they did from higher up. A farm vehicle passes us: its trailer contains a rather unusual harvest of five or six small children. Two French-speaking cyclists overtake us, then stop to let a car pass in the opposite direction. Looking at the car's number plates, the male cyclist comments in a rather condescending tone "Des Jurassiens…", then puts on a very French display of masculine cockiness by leaving the road and cycling along the grassy embankment beside it, as if to say to his girlfriend "Look what I can do".

As we reach the village of Wasserwendi, civilisation creeps in. There are quite a few new and expensive-looking chalets here, all of which have cars with ZH plates in their drives - clearly this is a weekend retreat for rich Zürchers. In front of one chalet, a woman is planing down bits of wood for her half-finished holiday house: presumably either a slightly less rich Zürcherin or a rare example of a Swiss DIY enthusiast.

We reach Wasserwendi with half an hour to spare before the next bus. A restaurant just by the bus stop means another welcome refreshment break, but the service is so slow that only 15 of the 30 minutes are left by the time my Suure Moscht arrives. We almost miss the bus as a result of not being able to find any staff to pay for the drinks, but in the end just make it in time. The bus takes us to Brünig-Hasliberg station, where we only have to wait for two minutes before the train arrives to take us back to Lucerne.

12 July 2014

From Göschenen to the Chelenalphütte

Time: 2 days (6 hours + 4.5 hours)
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1500 metres
Height loss: 1500 metres

Göschenen – Göscheneralp – Chelenalphütte and back

Seen from the train, Göschenen has always struck me as one of Switzerland's gloomiest places. Set in a deep, sunless valley at the northern end of the Gotthard railway tunnel, it always looks like a dark and uninviting place. The railway station itself is a cheerless place, with windy platforms and massive grey stone buildings. But, unseen to passing travellers on their way to sunny Ticino beyond the tunnel, there are several stunning Alpine valleys hidden away above the village, and it is to one of these that I am heading on this early Saturday morning.

The weekend weather forecast is a hard one to judge, with a possibly sunny but possibly cloudy Saturday, maybe but maybe not evening thunderstorms and overnight rain, then probably a sunny Sunday morning before more rain arrives later in the day. It could turn out to be perfect walking weather, just as it could be a complete washout. Despite the iffy forecast, the colleague who has organised this two-day hike had to call several huts before he finally found one that was not fully booked.

The five other people in the group have decided to drive up to Göscheneralp, thus saving themselves three hours' walking and about 800 metres of altitude gain. I fancy the idea of walking all the way up though: guidebooks tell me that the lower valley is pretty, and I want to test my fitness after what has been a very gentle summer of hiking so far. And so, while the others are probably still having a lazy breakfast, I disembark from the train in Göschenen just before ten in the morning, having left Lucerne an hour and a half earlier.

Leaving the station, I climb up above the village, whose houses and very substantial church are completely hidden from view when you pass through by train. It's a cloudy but dry morning – at least for the time being – and not cold at all, to my surprise. In fact the temperature is perfect for walking, either pleasantly warm or pleasantly cool depending on which side you look at it from. Dark grey clouds cling to the hillsides above the dark conifers that clad the steep sides of the valley.

The weathered wall of an old barn in the Göschenertal
For an hour or so, the path is more or less flat. First in forest, then across rough fields, it follows the southern flank of the valley, on the opposite side from the little road up to Göscheneralp. Tiny hamlets on the opposite side of the river punctuate the way up the valley, and the path crosses a multitude of little streams, all of which can be forded easily, although plank bridges are there if needed. I pass an ancient-looking barn, its wooden cladding twisted and stained into interesting shapes and colours by the passage of time.

Above the hamlet of Wiggen, the path begins its climb up to Göscheneralp and its large, dammed lake. As the gradient steepens, the three-tone sound of a post-bus horn drifts across through the trees from the other side of the valley, echoing off the cliffs, gradually getting closer, then receding again as the hairpins of the road take the bus away from me again.

At the top of this steeper section, the landscape widens out and flattens out again as I reach Gwüest, the valley's last hamlet. There is a camp site here, and a little lake beside which a signpost says "NUR FLIEGENFISCHEN". I initially take this to mean that the lake contains only flying fish, then realise that this would be a slightly unusual occurrence in a Swiss mountain lake, and that the sign is more likely to mean that only fly-fishing is allowed. The plank bridge that crosses the lake's outfall stream is in bad shape, with several planks missing, and its crossing requires some nimble hopping from one remaining piece of wood to the next.

Little lake just below the dam... here be flying fish
A final steep climb brings me up to the top of the dam, whose massive grass bank has hitherto been blocking the view to the upper valley beyond. There is still not much to see though: although the sky definitely seems to be lightening, the mountains beyond the turquoise lake are well and truly hidden.

I reach the car-park by the dam at exactly the agreed time, 12:30. The others have called to say that they are stuck in a traffic jam on the motorway, but I barely have time to eat a hunk of cheese before they arrive as well, and we set off for the second part of the walk. Our destination, the Chelenalphütte, is another 600 metres higher up, and is signposted as 2 hours 50 minutes' walking time from the dam. We climb quickly between huge, smooth granite slabs, contour round a tiny lake and continue more gently uphill. The weather is clearing fast now; the ratio of blue to white and grey in the sky is starting to tip in favour of the blue, and occasional breaks in the clouds away to the south-west give fleeting glimpses of the snow-covered tongue of the Dammagletscher. The high summits of the Winterberg, culminating in the 3630-metre Dammastock, remain hidden and will do so all weekend.

The cloud begins to clear
Having climbed almost 200 metres up from the dam, we now annoyingly lose most of that altitude as the path drops back down towards the far, western end of the lake. There is ample compensation though: rounding a corner, suddenly we are confronted with the stunning Chelenalptal, stretching away up ahead, rising over glaciers until it is closed by the jagged peaks that frame the Chelenlücke. The path climbs up the valley floor, increasingly rocky as we gain height very, very gently. As we advance, the colour of the rock gradually changes from grey to reddish-brown. At about 1980 metres, a tiny and deserted alp hut (not marked on the map) offers us the opportunity to rest, eat and summon up the energy for the final climb. This final section is inevitably going to be steep, and is soon given the nickname "Wall of Death": we still have 350 metres to climb, and considerably less than a kilometre's distance in which to climb them. 

In the Chelenalptal
Impressive scenery at the head of the valley
Setting off again, the path begins to rise as it angles towards the valley's northern side. It is hard to see where the way up to the hut might be, as the valley is flanked with very steep crags on all sides. We cross three or four streams on metal plank footbridges, which are slippery underfoot but luckily wide enough not to be intimidating. Now the way becomes clearer: up ahead and above, a large stone cairn sitting atop a huge flat slab shows where we must go. Just about at the point where the colour of the rock in the valley has shifted entirely from grey to red, the path angles up more steeply to reach the flat top of the slab, and a great view over the glacier ahead. It will be the last view we get, although we do not yet know it.

Now for the Wall of Death. Immediately above the big flat slab, the gradient of the path becomes very steep indeed, as it twists up in tight zigzags to reach the flatter ground above the crags. There is one short section where the path has to climb a rocky step and is secured with a chain handrail, but there are no real difficulties. Even so, with 1400 metres of climbing already done, my body is telling me that enough is enough, and I find the last 200 metres very tough indeed – never have I felt the title of this blog to be more appropriate. The hut is visible now, tantalisingly close, yet still twenty minutes' hard struggle away.

The last part of the climb to the Chelenalphütte is steep

Several of these footbridges have to be crossed
Finally we make it, as one always does. We get a very warm welcome from the couple who run the hut, which is surprisingly uncrowded: it looks like ourselves and another group of five are the only overnight guests. This means that the six of us have the luxury of a 12-bed room to ourselves, and the possibility to spread out as much as we want to. We order beers, and sit talking and playing cards until dinner is called at 18:30. As we sit there, refreshing ourselves and regaining energy, the cloud closes in outside, and soon the hut is enveloped in thick fog.

Dinner is excellent, one of the very best meals I have eaten in a mountain hut. A tasty soup is followed by a salad that includes not only an excellent dressing but also fresh iceberg lettuce – it can keep for up to ten days in the hut's cellar, says the warden. They had been expecting a food delivery, he tells us, but the weather has been so bad all week that the helicopter has not been able to come. The wardens, who are from Graubünden and chat away to each other in Romansch as they cook, are unusually friendly and chatty, maybe because with so few people staying here tonight, they have more time than would be the case if all sixty beds were taken. They tell us about the cost of flying supplies in by helicopter, and surprise us all when they tell us how much waste has to be flown out again: more than seven kilos per paying guest. The main course is a wonderfully tasty and tender beef stew, served with thick gravy and moist polenta; finally comes a dessert of what looks and tastes like home-made cake, served with whipped cream and accompanied by little glasses of Schnapps. Of course, food and drink always taste good after six hours of hard walking, but this is a veritable feast. More beer and more cards bring us to ten o'clock, and tiredness sets in. I am the first to turn in for the night: I fall asleep almost immediately and sleep right through till morning, not even needing to get up for the usual cold walk to the toilet. I cannot remember ever having slept so well in a hut. 

The Chelenalphütte on a damp, foggy Sunday morning
We get up at eight on Sunday morning, disappointed to see that the fog is still there. The other group of five have long since left, hoping to climb the Sustenhorn, although the warden is dubious as to whether it is feasible in today's conditions. There's a lot of fresh snow on the glacier, he says, it will be very hard for them to navigate safely through the fields of crevasses hidden beneath the snow, especially in such poor visibility.

We had hoped to take the high-level path that traverses back eastwards to the Bergseehütte, but the wardens have advised against attempting it in wet or foggy conditions, so we reluctantly decide to go back down the same way as we came up. It's a cool morning, not raining but the air is so dam that it might as well be. Raindrops cling to the Alpine flowers as we drop back down the "Wall of Death", which is unsurprisingly much less effort to negotiate downhill than up. We are soon back below the fog, but there is generally less to see than yesterday, the clouds are thick and low, refusing to clear above about 2,200 metres. We stop again to eat our snacks at the deserted little hut, then follow the previous afternoon's route back along the northern side of the lake, and finally back down to the dam as it starts to rain.

I decide to walk back down to Göschenen: it should only take me two hours, and I have exactly two hours to make it down in time for the 16:08 train. I drop down below the dam, passing through a large herd of cows, then an even larger flock of goats who look and sniff at me curiously. The broken bridge by the flying fish lake, has been miraculously repaired overnight, with brand new planks where yesterday were only holes. Then on down the steeper section of the path, which has become treacherously slippery in these damp conditions, slowing me down considerably. It starts to rain more heavily and persistently, the ground becomes ever more slippery and my progress slows. Eventually I give up trying to make it down in time for the train, and slow right down so that I will not have so long to wait for the next one. But I am in luck: as I arrive above the village, a good five minutes after the train should have left, I hear the station loudspeaker announcing its arrival. Swiss trains aren't very often ten minutes late, but every now and then it can be quite a good thing when they are. I arrive on the platform just in time to jump on board before the doors close, saving myself a cold and damp hour's wait in the grey environment of Göschenen station.

22 June 2014

From Engelberg to the end of the world… and beyond

Time: 7.25 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1300 metres
Height loss: 1300 metres

Engelberg – End der Welt – Fürenalp – Stäfeli - Engelberg

After two days spent assembling flat-pack furniture and clearing up the aftermath, I need to get outside on this warm, sunny Sunday. With a long walk planned, I force myself to get up at half past six and am at the station shortly before eight.

As ever, the train to Engelberg is packed with a mixture of walkers, quite a few of whom get off at Niederrickenbach, and of tourists heading for the Titlis. The main village street of Engelberg is, by comparison, as quiet as the grave on this Sunday morning. The sun is already hot as I climb the steep steps beside the monastery to reach the quiet lane that runs southwards below the line of the Brunni cable car, crossing a wide stream whose banks have been built up high with huge rocks, a reminder of the flood that devastated the village ten years or so ago.

A sunny morning in the Engelberg valley
My first destination today is a place marked on the map as End der Welt, which translates as "End of the World", and which I am curious to visit merely because of the name, although it means a detour from the main route of the walk. The path, running horizontally, leads me into an area of woodland, from which it emerges into a narrow side valley by a little whitewashed chapel. I soon reach the hamlet of Hinter Horbis, where a signpost informs me that the end of the world is a further 15 minutes away up the valley.

The end of the world is nigh...
It is not difficult to imagine how End der Welt got its name. Beyond the last house of the hamlet, there is no more civilisation. The valley is a dead end, closed in on three sides by high walls of rock, out of which there does not appear to be any way. The path climbs up steeply towards the base of the cliffs, through grassland strewn with huge boulders alongside a little stream. I wonder if the end of the world will be identifiable by some kind of signpost, feeling not unlike Winnie-the-Pooh setting out in search of the North Pole. I am somewhat miffed to find that there is no such sign: the path leads up to the base of a waterfall, then simply stops in the middle of nowhere. I wonder where the waterfall is coming from… after all, if this is the end of the world, then it must be coming from somewhere else.

End der Welt
Joking apart, End der Welt is a lovely place: tranquil and lonely, with no noise apart from the rushing stream and the tinkling of cowbells from somewhere further down the valley. Puffy little clouds decorate the morning sky up above the cliffs.

Given that this valley is a cul-de-sac, I have to retrace my steps back down to Hinter Horbis. Visiting the end of the world has added 40 minutes and a hundred metres' height gain to my walk, but it was worth the effort. Now comes the day's main climb, three hundred metres of uphill slog which take me out of the valley and up above the first line of cliffs. Climbing first in woodland, the path continues in broad zigzags up a stony gully, then traverses above the cliffs and climbs steeply again up a grassy pasture before levelling out at Ober Zieblen, a farm whose name is only a couple of letters away from translating as Upper Onions. Three cows decline to move off of the path, forcing me to contour around them on the steep hillside, then escorting me rather briskly to the edge of their territory, bells ringing as they walk behind me along the muddy path. Up ahead, the towers of the Gross and Chli Spannort appear through gaps in the trees.

Oi! Get off the path!
The next section of the walk is a classic example of what in French is referred to as a balcony path: a route that runs along one side of a valley, high up above its bottom. These paths are deceptive: on the map, they always look more or less horizontal, but invariably they never actually stay level and consist of an endless series of ups and downs, the general trend on the particular one being upwards. The path is mostly in forest, which it leaves for brief periods to cross steep slopes of grass, with the huge rock wedge of the Titlis immediately opposite on the far side of the valley. It is always a good path, though sometimes narrow and airy, especially in those places where it turns eastwards to cross small side valleys and ravines.

At Dagenstal, the path drops back down to 1587 metres to cross a broader side valley. Just beyond the farmhouse, I cross the valley's stream on a bridge made of a single plank of wood. No problem today; the stream is low, and I could probably have crossed it without getting my feet wet had I not fancied the rather unstable, bowing plank of the footbridge. With the stream in flood, this would be an interesting challenge for anyone without a good sense of balance.

Beyond the bridge, I pass through another herd of cows, once again on the path. Most of them move aside, but the last one seems unsure what to do, and sets off down the path in front of me, stopping and looking back every now and then in the hope that I will have disappeared. I move aside to let the cow back past me, but it seems too frightened to do so. Eventually, it tries to escape up the steep, earthy embankment to the left-hand side of the path, but the ground is far too unstable to support the cow's weight and it sets off a mini-landslide, earth and cow coming tumbling back down the bank onto the path. I manage to get out of the way: being buried under several hundred kilos of cow and half a ton of earth would be a rather silly way to hurt oneself in the mountains!

Now the path climbs more steeply, zigzagging up towards its highest point at Fürenalp. The ground becomes rockier, with numerous tiny streams trickling down over yellowish slabs to my left, offering me the opportunity to wet my sun hat and cool the top of my head down. 

Fürenalp, at 1844 metres, marks the highest altitude that I will reach today. There is a restaurant here, and a cable car that comes up from the valley, and the place is bustling with people who have come up for a Sunday lunch with a view. Just up above the restaurant is a tiny lake – more of a pond really, probably man-made – which a signpost identifies as Spiegelseeli or "little mirror lake". It certainly looks like an appropriate name, given its location immediately opposite the Spannort pinnacles, but there is not much reflection going on here today: the streamlet trickling into the pond is creating enough ripples on the water's surface to break up the mirror effect.

Fürenalp, with the Gross Spannort and Chli Spannort
The weather is changing as I begin the downhill half of my walk. Big, black clouds have appeared over the mountains, and the higher peaks have already half disappeared behind them. I know that rain is forecast for this evening, and suspect that I will soon be getting my waterproof jacket out for the first time of the summer. The rain holds off though, and the clouds do not manage to progress any further northwards, staying blocked behind the long ridge that links the Schlossberg to the Titlis via the Spannort and Grassen. In Alpine pastureland now, I drop down past the tiny hamlet of Äbnet, the view now opening up down the long valley that leads eastwards up to the Surenenpass. My route joins the path coming down from the pass above a thundering waterfall at Stäuber, then drops steeply down alongside the falls to reach the level bottom of the valley at Stäfeli, where there is another little restaurant.

The weather is changing
At this point, I am back in the bottom of the main Engelberg valley, and it would be tempting to think that the village is just round the corner. The upper valley is deceptively long though, and it is still more than two hours' walk from Stäfeli to Engelberg itself. It's an easy path, and mostly a very pretty one, but my legs and feet are tired after five hours' walking already. I cross the river at Alpenrösli (yet another little restaurant) and turn northwards alongside the rushing water. The path leads me through woodland, crosses occasional bridges over side streams. At one point, I hear the sound of a horn playing, and shortly afterwards I am confronted with the odd sight of a young man, bare-chested, standing in the middle of the path with an old-fashioned hunting horn wrapped around his neck and an iPhone in his hand. In terms of rather wacky things seen while hiking, this is on a par with the solder I saw playing the Alphorn in full uniform on the Fürstein, or the girl I saw texting while sitting on a horse in the Alpnachersee.

The path drops down across green pastures at Goldboden, crosses the river again and descends through more cowfields to Herrenrütiboden, where the cable car from Fürenalp arrives. I could simply follow the road back to Engelberg from here, but there is a prettier path that crosses the river once more, then runs through woods along the edge of a golf course, before reaching the village along a combination of lanes and riverside paths.

There are worse places for a round of golf...
For the last two hours, I have known that there is a fair chance I will miss the 17:01 train by a couple of minutes, and that I will have to wait an hour for the next one. I want to get home to watch the football, but on the other hand I could quite happily spend that hour with a beer in Engelberg. In the end, I decide not to bother rushing for the train… but the signposts have either overestimated the distance or underestimated the length of my legs. I make it with five minutes to spare, which gives me time both to buy a can of Quöllfrisch from the shop at the station and to get home just in time for the start of the game.

Quiet lanes lead back to Engelberg

19 June 2014

A rather boggy walk on the Schlierengrat

Time: 4.5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 700 metres
Height loss: 1100 metres

Langis – Schlierengrat – Schrotenegg - Gfellen

Another Thursday off work, the sun is shining and I have a dilemma, with a choice between assembling flat-pack furniture or going to the mountains. My head tells me to go for the screwdriver and the hammer, but my heart says "head for the hills" and, not surprisingly, my head does not offer much resistance. Along with a friend from the office who is equally keen to get some mountain air, I take the train to Sarnen, then a post bus that crawls up the side of the valley to Langis. The engine of the bus smells hot on the steep road (but probably not as hot as the cyclists who we overtake), and unsettling grating noises come from somewhere beneath my feet every time it goes round a right-hand bend, which seems to be most of the time.

We start walking at Langis, at an altitude of 1442 metres. The Schlierengrat, over which we will walk, stretches away northwards, a long, wooded ridge whose highest point is a mere 300 metres further above sea level. At nine in the morning, the air is still surprisingly cool as we walk along the broad, rather muddy track to the restaurant at Schwendi Kaltbad.

Shortly after this point, the climb up onto the ridge begins. A path branches off to the right, goes round the back of a farmhouse and soon gains height, climbing diagonally up across a mixture of pasture and forest. The ground is spongy underfoot and there is an abundance of cotton grass, which leads to an English-German exchange of vocabulary around the concepts of marsh, bog and swamp.

The wooded crest of the Schlierengrat
  It does not take us long to reach the crest of the ridge at 1649 metres. The ground is drier here, and is carpeted with swathes of what will become blueberries later in the season. My walking partner for the day grew up in the country and is well-versed in edible plants; she picks some Suurklee or wild clover and encourages me to try it, assuring me that it makes a great salad. Seeing my grimace, she comments that it might taste a bit bitter and that you have to eat a lot of it to really appreciate it. She tries the same trick again later with what looks like a daisy, and which is equally bitter. Next time I will remember to bring a bottle of salad dressing.

The ridge, which forms the cantonal boundary between Lucerne and Obwalden, is wooded, and there are only brief openings on either side which allow us to see the surrounding landscape. To our left, the western Lucerne side of the ridge drops away almost vertically into a deep, broad valley, beyond which the Fürstein and the Schimbrig rear up steeply. The Obwalden side of the ridge, on our right, runs away more gently into thick forest, with only very occasional views over to the parallel ridge of the Jänzi.

The best of the views are on the Lucerne side of the ridge
We are surprised by a noise coming from down below in the western valley that sounds for all the world like a train juddering to a halt. We know perfectly well that there is no railway in the valley, and wonder what the noise might be. Then suddenly, the sound switches from ground to sky, and is revealed to be made by a glider that passes just overhead. How deceptive sound can be: both of us had clearly perceived it to be coming from the valley far below, when in fact it was up above our heads in the sky.

The ridge is a succession of ups and downs, with a general upward trend. In places it is quite narrow – narrower than I had expected, though never worryingly so – then it broadens out again. Gradually we climb up until we reach the highest point on the ridge, at an altitude of 1748 metres. A short and unexpected scramble down a rocky step brings us to a flat spot where a bench suggests that this would be a good place to stop for lunch, even though it is early. As we eat, mist rolls in and the temperature drops sharply, so that by the time we have finished our sandwiches, both of us are feeling quite chilly. As we set off again northwards along the misty tree-covered crest, there is a distinctly autumnal atmosphere.

An unexpected rocky step has to be scrambled down. I had envisaged doing the Schlierengrat as a snowshoe hike last winter: this passage would definitely have meant turning back.

A few more humps and bumps, narrow sections and wider sections, then the ridge comes to an abrupt end. Leaving the trees behind, we drop down to the broad and gently saddle of Schrotenegg, where the western end of the Pilatus range comes into view above the forest.

At Schrotenegg, the ridge gives way to open pastures
Now we turn westwards and downwards, descending across very pretty pastureland towards the farmhouse at Ober Laueberg. We pass through a herd of young bullocks that have decided to sit in the middle of the path, cross a stream beside the farmhouse and continue into increasingly boggy ground. This looks like the kind of terrain that is probably wet and sticky even after weeks of drought, and the fact that it has been well and truly churned by cattle does not help. We make slow progress as we twist and turn to avoid the muddiest bits, but before long, my trousers are well and truly brown all the way up to the knees. Unfairly and inexplicably, my friend manages to keep completely clean despite the fact that she is wearing trail-running shoes rather than hiking boots. By the time we reach the edge of the forest below Mittler Laueberg, the proportion of water to terra firma has become such that the ground basically looks like a pond with bits of grass sticking up out of it. I manage to get mud inside my boots… now I am going to have to wash my feet! The compensation for all this bogginess is an abundance of Alpine flowers of all shapes, sizes and colors.

Ober Laueberg, with the Schimbrig in the background
In the forest again, pungent with the smell of wild garlic, the nature of the problem changes. The path is steep, narrow, stony, slippery and heavily overgrown, so that it is very difficult for us to know whether the places we are putting our feet are safe, or whether a broken ankle is imminent. This is definitely not a path on which you would want to be hurrying in order to make it down in time for the last bus. The path is indistinct, and only the occasional red and white marks on trees reassure me that we have not followed the bed of a dried-up stream by mistake. It all feels a bit Amazonian, but maybe that's just the Brazil effect in the middle of the World Cup.

Eventually we make it down to the valley, and to civilisation. The path becomes a broad track and, for the first time all day, we see other people. At Brüedere, the path has been mown to almost golf course tidiness as it crosses the middle of a field of tall grass. Here too, a very twee public toilet looks just like a doll's house, complete with red-curtained square windows, just like a child would draw them.

We reach our destination at Gfellen at twenty past two. There is a bus from here every hour at quarter past… except at 3:15, when there is a gap in the timetable. Luckily, there is a restaurant here, and we spend a happy hour and a half with coffee, beer, sorbet and one of the most enormous meringues I have ever see, served with a bucketful of whipped cream. There is some kind of army exercise going on in the big car-park beside the restaurant, which seems to consist of soldiers moving piles of boxes from one random place to another, then building fences round them. They all seem to be enjoying themselves, especially the ones who get to drive the heavy lorries and the fork-lift truck… it all reminds me very much of playing with train sets as a boy. As the soldiers practise parking their Jeeps in a very precise, orderly line, the bus arrives. Ten minutes later we are at the railway station in Entlebuch, and not much longer after that, are back in Lucerne.

09 June 2014

Over the Mittaggüpfi from Schwarzenberg to Eigenthal

Time: 6.25 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1100 metres
Height loss: 900 metres

Schwarzenberg – Stäfeli – Mittaggüpfi – Unter Lauelen – Eigenthal

There must be something about hills with names that include the word "midday", something that generates unusually hot weather conditions every time I climb one. A few years ago, also in June, I walked up the Rocher du Midi under a scorching sun. This year, the same thing has happened on the Mittaggüpfi, a summit in the Pilatus range whose name means pretty much the same thing, notwithstanding the minor detail of being in a different language.

I have moaned at some length about the series of cold, wet long weekends that we have endured this year. There can be no complaints about this particular bank holiday weekend though: with temperatures up in the 30s, it is weather for swimming in lakes (though these are still a bit chilly) and barbecues beside them. I spend my Sunday evening doing precisely this, going to Neuchâtel for a beach barbecue before travelling back to Lucerne on the last train.

I am determined to go hiking on Monday despite the late night, and am very pleased with myself when I actually manage to get up an hour earlier than planned, at seven. A ten-minute train ride to Malters and an equally short hop on the bus soon bring me to Schwarzenberg, a village with a very rural feel to it, despite the bustle of Lucerne being so close at hand. Green hills topped with solitary trees surround the scattered houses of the village, while away to the south stretches the great rock wall of the Pilatus range, a formidable barrier even from this distance.

The hike begins with a long but enjoyable approach walk up a very pretty, rural valley. Downhill at first to cross the river below the village, then up to a little whitewashed chapel beside a farm, where a small dog yaps at me from behind a fence. The yapping goes on for long after I have passed the farmhouse, stops, then starts up again, presumably because someone else is on the path behind me. A signpost informs me that it will take 3 hours and 10 minutes to reach the summit: absolutely perfect, it means that I will reach the Mittaggüpfi on the stroke of Mittag… but then, twenty minutes later, another sign still indicates the same 3 hours 10 minutes.

I climb up through ungrazed meadows of long grass, soon joining a lane that winds gently uphill into the deepening valley. The heat of the sun is intense: I am very glad that I managed to start earlier than planned, and also happy that I brought along a second water bottle, as I am clearly going to need every drop of the two litres. The lane continues past farm buildings dotted on the open hillside, then enters the shade of the forest for a mercifully cool interlude. When I emerge once more from the trees, the rock wall up ahead has become significantly closer and seems to have increased substantially in size. Looking up at the summits of the Mittaggüpfi to the left and the Stäfeliflue to its right, I wonder how on earth I am going to get up there. Despite the heat, the north-facing wall still holds some snow – after all it is only the start of June – and I hope that none of the snow patches will obstruct the path.

How on earth am I going to get up there?
 The forest gives way to beautiful, open grassland, where little barns add interest to the foreground. A few puffs of cloud start to form above the ridge ahead, and I wonder if the thunderstorms forecast for this evening will arrive sooner than expected. The clouds soon burn off in the heat of the sun though, and half an hour later have disappeared.

The isolated farmhouse at Vorder Stäfeli (1300 m) marks the end of the gentle approach walk and the start of the more serious stuff. It's a lovely spot: two picturesque buildings set in a sea of green grass, on the edge of a wood and immediately below the towering cliffs of the Stäfeliflue. The heat is taking its toll, and I stop to have another drink and to eat an energy bar: in these conditions, I know that it will be important for me to pace myself and force myself to take proper breaks, something which I often neglect to do when walking alone.

Vorder Stäfeli, a lovely setting
Now I begin to climb more steeply, first of all through pastures that are covered in an ocean of daisies, then up through forest to the very base of the cliffs. A deep ravine opens up in front of me, and the path uses this as its way up the rock face, zigzagging its way up the ravine's left side, using grassy ledges to quickly gain height. I was hoping to be able to do this steepest part of the climb in the shade, but even beneath these north-facing cliffs, the sun has advanced just a little bit too quickly, and is now beating down with all its force. The path is steep and narrow, with a few rocky steps to negotiate, a somewhat milder version of the Heitertannliweg above Ober Lauelen, a little further east in the same mountain range.

The colours of meadow and woodland
The summit is in sight now, no more than 250 metres above me. But now I am confronted with what I had feared most today: in one shady place, the path crosses a gully that is still choked snow. Though not very wide – only six or seven paces across, the snowfield is steeply-angled and there would be little chance of stopping a slide down towards the rocks at its bottom. I advance carefully onto the snow, one step at a time, using the marks made by those who have passed before me. One step, then two… but on the third step, I can feel my boot sliding on the hard, trampled snow. I freeze for a moment, then retreat backwards onto firmer ground. Turning back so close to the summit would be annoying to say the least, but my confidence has gone. Luckily, a group of people who are sitting just before the snowfield having a break offer to help: "We do this sort of thing all the time", one man says. He goes ahead of me across the snowfield, showing me the best places to put my feet and hands for balance, while another member of the group hops out into the middle of the snowfields down below, standing there to arrest a possible slip. They all make it look ridiculously easy and, on reaching the far side without any problem, I feel rather inadequate.

Summit in sight
I thank the group for saving my day, and continue slowly but surely up the final few zigzags to the ridge. There are some more rocky sections to scramble up, and a couple of places where the path is close to the edge, but I make it to the broad, grassy ridge with no further difficulties. One final short uphill walk brings me to the rocky outcrop of the Mittaggüpfi's 1917-metre summit, my first "proper" hill of the season. I have not quite made the Mittag deadline, but I am only twenty minutes late and am quite pleased to have done the entire 1100-metre ascent from Schwarzenberg in less than three and a half hours of actual walking time.

This is a popular mountain, and the area around the summit is crowded with walkers. I have seen very few other people on the way up, so can only assume that most of the people are either doing the walk in the opposite direction from me or are halfway along a complete crossing of the Pilatus range, a much more serious undertaking. The Pilatus itself is the dominant feature of the foreground. Everything further away is somewhat lost in the heat haze: the Titlis is prominent to the south, its snowy summit jutting up behind the dark, tree-covered ridge lines of the Schlierengrat and the Jänzi. Far, far away to the north, beyond the lakes of the Swiss Plateau, the dark line of the Jura hills is just – but only just – visible.

I was hoping at least for a refreshing breeze at the summit, but there is none, and the heat seems just as intense here as it did down in the valley. I apply yet another coat of sun protection and sit on the grass to eat an improvised lunch of salad left over from yesterday's barbecue, a hunk of cheese and an apple that is somewhat past its best.

Downhill now, along the Mittaggüpfi's broad south-eastern shoulder. In a marshy bowl at the bottom of this initial descent, I leave the ridge and head eastwards down into a rather scruffy, scrubby valley between steep walls of rock. There are one or two scrambly sections on this descent as well, although the path on the whole is easier than the one by which I walked up. I drop down again through sparse woodland to Oberalp, where a lonely farmhouse stands in the middle of a grassy bowl littered with boulders. The alp does not seem to be worked any more – there is no sign of any cows or other animals – but the house is inhabited, its occupants lounging on deck-chairs taking in the view of the Pilatus just in front of them.

There are two ways back down to the main valley from here. One drops steeply and immediately down, while the other remains at altitude for a while before losing height further east. The valley bottom route looks like it will be in the sun pretty much all the time, so I opt for the second route, which looks like it will offer more shade as it drops gradually down the wooded hillside. It is a pretty path, with a succession of patchy woodland and open hillside, staying more or less level for half an hour as it contours beneath the Widderfeld's vertical north face. Now the real descent begins: steep zigzags take me down to a point marked on the map as Bründle, where the path enters a steep gorge beside waterfalls that trickle more than they roar. A little further down, an exposed (but easy) passage is secured by a fixed cable: one zigzag lower, an equally exposed section has no protection at all. The path is always good and wide though, falling over the edge would require a fairly major slip or lapse of concentration.

A well-secured section of path on the steep drop down to the valley
Hot, sticky and tired, I reach the valley floor. Like the approach at the start of the walk, there is a longish walk out at the end, to reach the bus stop at Eigenthal. There is no shelter from the sun, which is now beating down from behind, forcing me to turn my cap backwards so that its peak protects my neck. A spring provides a welcome opportunity to ditch the little bit of warm water left in my bottles and replenish them with lovely, cold water straight from the mountains. Up above the summit where I had lunch, a tall, strangely-shaped cloud drifts in front of the sun, a first indicator of the violent thunderstorm that will hit the area in two or three hours' time.

The path brings me to the rustic Alpine restaurant at Unter Lauelen, where people are sitting eating and drinking under yellow sunshades, and where three accordionists and a double-bassist are playing traditional folk music. The combined lure of beer and music is too much to resist… never has a bottle of Eichhof tasted quite as wonderful! The walkers who helped me across the snowfield are there, and wave to me. I thank them again and reassure them that I survived the remainder of my walk. The whole thing is rather lovely: though the music is of the folksy type which you can probably hear in tourist traps all over the country, there is not a tourist in sight here, all of the people sitting at the long wooden tables are either locals of hikers. As the band plays a waltz, an elderly man in red hiking trousers and big boots invites one of the local women to dance, and they hop up and down and twirl as elegantly as one can when wearing size 45 hiking boots.

Happily full of cold beer, I set off for the final half an hour's walking down to Eigenthal: a pretty riverside walk, mostly in the shade. The red-trousered waltzer overtakes me, and I compliment him on his dancing. He slows down and starts chatting to me, tells me that he is called Conrad and that he goes dancing every week. Together with some friends, he has been up the Pilatus' east ridge from Hergiswil, then down via the Heitertannliweg to Unter Lauelen. I tell him that I am English, but live in Lucerne and work in Rotkreuz; we exchange jokes about the lack of mountains in England and the excess of fog in Rotkreuz. So much for all the rubbish one hears about the Swiss being cold and unapproachable people…

As I reach the bus stop, the sky has turned very black away westwards, over the Emmental. It has been a long walk, possibly a bit too physically demanding for such hot conditions, and I feel completely drained. Nothing that a cool bath won't cure though. Despite the heat, and despite the long approach walk at the start, it has been a highly enjoyable day, and a walk that I would recommend without hesitation.

01 June 2014

From Stans to Flüeli, in the footsteps of pilgrims and hermits

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 820 metres
Height loss: 520 metres

Stans – St. Antoni – St. Niklausen – Ranft – Flüeli

Another long weekend, and another one where the weather has not been very kind to the walkers of central Switzerland – in fact, this could be said for the month of May 2014 as a whole. But today is the first of June, and suddenly everything is right again: blue sky, warm, summery air and no forecast of rain.

I have set my sights today on a relatively low-level walk along the eastern side of the valley that runs southwards from Lake Lucerne up towards the Brünigpass. Known as the Bruder-Klausen-Weg, the route is named after a 15th-century hermit and local celebrity called Niklaus von Flüe (which seems a rather grand name for a hermit), familiarly known as "Brother Klaus".

The walk also forms part of the way to Santiago de Compostela, and my guidebook tells me that I can expect to see "lots of pilgrims in summer". I wonder what a pilgrim looks like, and whether I will be able to identify them… I have a mental picture of someone with a staff, a cross, probably also a cloak with a hood – somewhere between Gandalf and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A short train ride takes me to Stans, where the walk starts just beside the massive church on the main village square. A steep road takes me up out of the village, quickly leaving the residential areas for a landscape of very green, rolling fields with old wooden farmhouses. I cross the tracks of the old funicular railway that runs up towards the Stanserhorn and, soon afterwards, leave the road for a path that climbs up steeply before levelling out to cross the open hillside, running along hedgerows between fields of cows. The day's first climb – and its longest – is already over.

The historic Stanserhorn funicular...
I am on the lookout for pilgrims, but see none. A big, black raven hops across the path in front of me, but does not look very pilgrim-ish. Ditto the man walking his dog coming the other way… in fact he is walking in the wrong direction, away from Santiago, so definitely not a pilgrim. In fact, what I see most of is mountain bikers. At Murmatt, just beyond a farm with an ancient silo in the yard, there is a group of about ten of them, all lined up in a field beside their bikes, while one of the group tries to balance a camera on a fence post in preparation for a group selfie. He sets the timer, dashes the twenty yards to the group, grabs his bike and smiles in unison with the others as the picture is taken. Returning to the camera, he delivers the verdict: "Isch tip-top!": the instant has been successfully immortalized.

... and a no less historic silo in a farmyard at Murmatt
Across the valley, the Pilatus is showing off from an unusual angle (unless you happen to live in or around Stans, in which case it is of course the normal angle). With a few harmless but photogenic cumulus clouds hovering just above its summit, you can see why the bikers chose the place for their team photo.

Now the path runs gently downhill, briefly passing through woodland before starting to climb again. Leaving the forest, I cross a clearing where the view opens up to reveal a perfect landscape of wooden farmhouses, a distant church (whose bells obligingly start to strike midday as I look at it) and the Pilatus in the background. Drooling over all this picture-postcard Swissness, I manage to miss a signpost and am soon heading merrily off in a completely wrong direction. The path contours round a field of long grass, then becomes narrow and muddy as it climbs again through woodland… before running out of steam and disappearing altogether on the edge of what looks like an old quarry. I retrace my steps for a bit, find a track that seems to be heading the right way, and am soon back on my intended route.

Pilatus, as always the star of the show
I stop to eat my sandwiches at half past twelve, right on the cantonal boundary between Nidwalden and Obwalden. Two women arrive chatting loudly and – rather annoyingly, given that they have acres of Swiss perfection to choose from – sit down right next to me to eat their own lunch as they continue their conversation. It would have been nice to have a bit of a snooze, but I cannot be bothered to move to a quieter place, so carry on walking.

My guidebook mentions "a few short stretches of walking on hard surfaces", but this central part of the walk in fact contains a fairly lengthy section of tarred lanes. The next 45 minutes or so are hard underfoot and not particularly interesting, until I reach the hamlet of St. Antoni, where there are two or three pleasantly scruffy farms (by Swiss standards at least), where children's toys and old agricultural implements complete for space in the farmyard. A bit further on, in a little valley by an isolated house, a sign has been erected indicating "High water mark, 14th June 2016". Such anticipation is admirable: the inhabitants of the house have two years to get everything out of harm's way before the flood arrives.

I pass a field of impressive reddish-brown, long-horned cows, all gathered round a huge black bull that looks positively evil: I am thankful that there is s sturdy fence between me and them. On this section, I see the only evidence of any pilgrim-related paraphernalia, in the form of a barn that is improvising as a "Pilgrims' Café". The barn is sadly empty, with no Gandalfs or Archbishops leaning wearily on their staves.

Stanserhorn with spring flowers
The path now runs along a shallow valley, whose isolated trees and barns and multicoloured flowers make a good foreground for pictures of the Stanserhorn, now well behind me. I come to a path marked by a curious sign: "Private. Reserved for sisters". I knew I should have brought my sister along… There are several more of these signs: the mystery is finally resolved as the building up ahead reveals itself to be a convent, though it also seems to be operating as a hotel, restaurant and conference centre – presumably more lucrative than just praying.

I cross the main Melchtal road at St. Niklausen, beyond which the path drops steeply and unexpectedly into a deep valley, zigzagging down past ancient barns to cross the river on a footbridge at a place marked on the map as Ranft. This is where our hermit with the posh name came to live to at the point where he decided to retire from society. There are two white chapels down beside the river, one dating from the early 16th century, one a little older. The newer of the two chapels has a very interesting carved and painted wooden interior, while the older one, slightly higher up above the river, is much plainer inside. There is an air of isolation about the place even today, and it is not hard to imagine how remote it must have felt in the 1470s. Nevertheless, it is only a short (but steep) 20-minute walk from here to the village of Flüeli, with its church posed perfectly on a grassy mound and its big, old Art Nouveau hotel. The post bus is waiting and will be leaving in five minutes: no time for a beer, but it's only a 45-minute ride home and there is plenty in the fridge…

Summer has arrived, soon it's going to be time to start going up mountains again.

Old barn on the descent to Ranft